In the Bible, Jesus is said to have raised the brother of Mary and Martha, Lazarus, from the dead. About five years ago, when protease inhibitors and combination therapy for HIV patients became wildly popular, the media and pharmaceutical companies generalized the success of these drugs as a kind of Lazarus Syndrome. Take the drugs and a miracle will occur: you live. The hype was that HAART (highly active antiretroviral therapy) could save anyone with HIV or AIDS from certain death. Of course, Jesus never made Lazarus show proof of insurance or promise to adhere to a grueling daily regimen of pills with side effects so onerous and bizarre that he might sometimes wish he were dead. Nope. Jesus just raised Lazarus from the dead. No strings attached.
I do not like to take HIV drugs. In fact, I did not put a single HIV medication in my body until October of 1997, a good two and a half years after protease inhibitors and the "cocktail" made their debut. Back in 1994, my first infectious disease specialist told me that if I wouldn't take AZT then there was nothing else he could do for me. He was one of those doctors who spends nine minutes with you and charges you $85.
I took a holistic approach to my health. I wouldn't call it a bad decision or the wrong choice and I certainly don't regret it; nevertheless, I landed in the hospital with 79 t-cells and a bad case of pneumocystis pneumonia on August 4th, 1997. A couple of other opportunistic infections followed -- the kind with long, serious names. I almost died. The photo that runs with this column (Don't I look fabulous for someone who'd lost thirty pounds and my job?) was taken the very week I began to take the so-called AIDS "cocktail," a perfectly ridiculous name that implies you'll end up cheerfully intoxicated and feeling no pain.
I took the drugs because I was scared. I was scared that I was going to die if I didn't take the drugs. Frankly, and this may shock some of you, if I had it all to do over again, I might have made a very different choice. I might have skipped the drugs. I might still be alive anyway. Or I might be dead, waiting for Jesus to perform a miracle. I really think He owes me one for enduring all the summers of Vacation Bible School.
So I took the drugs and I didn't die. I feel like crap a lot of the time. I don't know whether it's the drugs or the HIV or both. For a while, I had a rather pessimistic view of my life that went something like this: I'm skinny and toxic and tired and living on disability and infected and damaged and my career is over and I'm less of a man and sex isn't fun anymore and who could love me anyway because I fart more than I ever thought any human being possibly could. Or as I once said . . . my baggage has already filled the overhead compartment; yours will have to go under the seat.
I'm not sure at exactly what point my attitude changed. I just know I got tired of being that dark, unhappy fellow whose entire life revolved around HIV. Something had to change. I couldn't change my HIV status, but I could change the way I live in the world. And the key word here is live. I had to consciously choose to live rather than waiting to die, and I had to accept my situation and make friends with myself. Yeah, a lot of the time I'm still confused or frustrated or indecisive and very resentful of this virus that lives inside of me. But when all that stuff becomes troublesome, I've learned to counteract it by being unpredictable, spontaneous and openhearted. I can let HIV be a dark cloud that blocks the sun or I can use it as a vehicle to discover other sources of warmth and brilliance in my life. When it comes right down to it, I'm responsible for my own joy and I can work with my life just as it is and I can be there for myself. I used to think I was this angry, complicated guy. Now I see myself as a complex individual with a full range of emotions. A subtle difference, perhaps, but a far more compassionate way of looking at myself.
Okay, so I can't escape HIV. What I can do, is remove the self-imposed death sentence and get on with living. For me that meant moving from Georgia to California's Bay Area late last year. Moving is supposed to be one of the most stressful events in your life. Yep, it was. There were all kinds of obstacles along the way. Getting my phone service was an ordeal. The phone company out west is called Pacific Bell, a sort of sinister cult whose members chant phrases like, "We only guarantee a dial tone . . . We only guarantee a dial tone . . ." But for every frustrating moment, there have been dozens of signs that life is still a fascinating journey. If I were dead, for instance, I would have missed the sight of a gay porn star buying orange juice at the Safeway grocery store. I would have missed having the Pacific Bell guy hit on me. And I would have missed the opportunity to spend Christmas serving dinner to San Francisco's significantly large homeless population.
This column is supposed to be about sex, so it's my duty to inform you that I had sex the first week I lived in California. Sex is plentiful in the Bay Area, especially San Francisco. It's a lot easier to find than a microwave. I had to go to twelve stores to find a new microwave. I only had to ask one guy to have sex. It wasn't the Pacific Bell guy, just for the record. So I had sex with a sweet and sour sorta guy named Michael and we broke the bed. I think it had more to do with me setting the bed up wrong than the actual sex itself. I remember thinking it was amusing in a Lucy Ricardo sorta way.
I'll be writing about sex a lot more in the future. Stay tuned. And remember: you're cruising with Lazarus.